|A brand new Polish-developed single player RPG of the Bioware vein, not only does The Witcher look truly gorgeous - as you can see - but boasts a musical score better than most films. But how's she play?|
On first firing up The Witcher, I had it pegged for another sub-standard budget-ware piece o' RPG shite, not unlike Two Worlds or Gothic III. The opening hour, which introduces the characters, sets up the story and acts as one never ending tutorial, is so god damn awful you see, it's almost enough to make one wish he'd bought Hellgate instead. Almost.
Before we get into all that though, let's set the scene. A single player RPG for the PC, The Witcher sees you playing the role of Geralt, who as the title subtly hints at, is a renowned "Witcher". What the shit's a Witcher, you ask? Half human, half witch. That's a lie. More half human, half wolf-mutant thing
, who as a side bonus, is also blessed with superhuman abilities. Crazy strength, mad skills, Force-like powers...and if you play your character anything like mine, mammoth cock size too. Witchers are essentially medieval Jedi, similarly set upon ridding the world of evil and acting as peacekeepers, the prime difference being they charge money for it. Smart.
|Like all good RPGs, Witch boasts its own fully featured gambling mini-game, an addictive variant of poker...with dice|
Sadly for him, when we first meet poor Geralt, he's not only laying half dead in the woods, but's also struck down with plot-fuelling amnesia. Although unsure where he is nor how he got there, his old Witcher pals promptly - and conveniently - show up, drag him home, and nurse him back to health, with the game proper kicking in thereafter. Here a memory-less Geralt re-learns how to fight, quizzes friends on his murky past, and familiarizes himself with the ways of The Witch. I smell a tutorial!
Unfortunately for the game, this entire prologue is plagued with truly disastrous voice-acting, cringe-worth dialogue and hysterically bad animation, rendering it about on par with The Thunderbirds for conviction. Part of this may be The Witcher's roots as a Polish game, suffering from localization issues and subsequently odd dialogue choices, but I fear it's more down to the horrific actors filling its various roles. Ye old English meets grating American accents and conspicuously contemporary dialect that you may well hear at your local Tescos on the average beer run, and it doesn't work. At all.
I was ready to burn The Witcher at the stake then, pitchforks and fire in tow, but I pushed on, regardless, determined to see the initial hour through if nothing else. Which would be about 58 minutes longer than I managed with Two Worlds.
Ya know what? I'm glad I did too...
As this extended tutorial draws to an end, the Witchers' base is set upon by evil-doers, peeps get fucked up, and Geralt is promptly sent off to seek revenge on those responsible. The oddest thing happens here however. With the stilted prologue concluded, and the lame intro characters vanquished - in particular the god-awful Triss - The Witcher becomes, well, good. Damn
good in fact. I'm talking all but Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate II, Bioware-at-the-top-of-their-game good. Seriously.
|Along with its central plot, The Witcher boasts an endless stream of side quests too. Expect a good 40 hours o' game|
It uses the old Neverwinter engine at its core incidentally, heavily spruced up to make use of physics, motion blur and all those fancy effects we've since come to expect, and despite the somewhat iffy animations mentioned above, it looks and performs amazingly. It may boast somewhat clichéd fantasy views on the face of it - your green forests, your grey castles, and a relentless stream of cobbled, medieval streets - but there's a detail, richness and a realism here only the very best RPGs truly nail. Even in its busier moments, framerate remains consistent, so much so that one can't believe this is the same infamous tech pushing around the sellotaped-together Neverwinter Nights 2
. You feel DeLoreaned about twenty years into the future by comparison.
Despite my Neverwinter name-dropping, note The Witcher plays itself differently though. Plumping for a more cinematic (and flat-out exciting) over-the-shoulder camera, it's considerably more fast-paced and action-packed next to the vintage D&Ders of old. While stats play their role of course, combat's quasi real-time and twitchy you see, combining traditional click-to-attack shenanigans with - oddly enough - a minor rhythm game slant. You have to click at specific points to pull off the more damaging attacks, and while confusing and odd at first, it works rather well when you get the hang of it. Nailing four or five consecutive hits in this way, sees Geralt pulling off the most awe-inspiring, Chow Yun-Fat-style combos, in arguably the one single area in which the game truly shines, animation-wise.
As you level up and progress, new moves, stances, combinations and weapons throw themselves into the mix, with battles soon looking less game, more heavily-choreographed action flick. Battling numerous combatants at once with screams, blood, and heads flying off in every direction just ain't the sorta sight you normally expect in an RPG.
And, umm...it's pretty fucking cool
That ain't all, as there's a whole other side to The Witcher worthy of immense praise. The game is dark, you see. It's mature. It's brutal. It's pretty damn hardcore, even. Those who dug the bugged semi-classic Vampire: Bloodlines
should sit up and pay attention here, because this is far and away the closest a game's come yet to matching that game's grit.
|Geralt ain't your typical hero. His personality varies depending on choice, naturally, but the guy in general seems way more womanizing, mean and a fuckin' hard bastard than the standard gaming fare. Even so-called "good" dialogue choices drift more towards Bauer-isms|
Characters swear their mouths off, there's plenty o' good old nakedness, and as far as I know, it's the only game in existence to boast immortal lines like, "Your mother sucks dwarf cock!" and "I fucked a she-Elf once". Unless you count public chat in World of Warcraft.
I even banged my first broad in the first hour
, and it was by no means my last. That this coincided with my sudden change of heart towards the game, means nothing. Honest. It goes beyond simple gratuitousness though; there's some pleasingly adult themes and twists here. In The Witcher's world for example, Elves and Dwarves are considered minorities, the subject of vile racism and endless insults. You'll have some intriguing moral choices to make along these lines, and while there's no dark/light side path per se, there are definite repercussions for your actions. Some you may not realise 'til a good ten hours later.
Along with the aforementioned minorities, Witchers themselves are even somewhat looked down upon, like some kinda cursed freaks to be feared by the masses, despite their being simultaneously sought after in times of need. This alone provides a pleasing twist on the standard idolized hero figure, and is a prime example of The Witcher's ability to take things in a...slightly more original direction than most.
The stilted awkwardness and stream of non-sequiturs from the god-awful prologue regularly rear their head more often than one would have liked - often rendering this stuff less potent than it ideally should have been - but a good 15 hours in at this point, the game's already touched upon the likes of political intrigue, child abduction, murder and rape...all pretty head-on, at that.
I even fucked a witch. Covered in blood.
|Witch's got the whole Fable-esque real-world vibe going on. NPCs function on a proper day/night cycle, chatting, working and sleeping as they should. At one point it spontaneously broke out in rain, and they all ran indoors|
With that in mind, it sure is refreshing to experience an all-too-rare game aimed at a slightly older demographic than most. My biggest gripe with the game however - besides the Jekyll & Hyde-esque opening hour - is something far more mundane I'm afraid. Frankly, the load times are disastrous
. Jumping from interior to exterior sees you twiddling thumbs for way too long, too frequently, and just a simple "quick"-save can last up to a whopping great 15 seconds on top. My stop-watch doth not lie. This is all one humongous downer I'm sad to say, and grows incredibly tiresome when playing for extended periods of time. Or longer than five minutes.
Regardless of Dig's video-game ADD, The Witcher's a splendid surprise for the most part though. A mean, adult-focused RPG that mixes intense, enjoyable combat, and intriguingly mature themes with just a damn impressive world for you to explore on top. The day/night cycles, the wealth of side content, and the pleasing emphasis of moral choice spruce it up way beyond its peers of late, resulting in, for me, the best single player RPG to hit the PC since Oblivion.
Those anxiously awaiting the long-in-the-works Dragon Age next year, could do a hell of a lot worse than dig out The Witcher in the meantime then, content in the fact that while it may have some iffy voice acting and be a little rough around the edges, it has, in fact, beaten Bioware to the punch in many of that game's much-hyped goals...
Although I fully expect the boys to bounce back in style with Mass Effect next week.
Since release, patches have improved The Witcher's load times hugely. While still not perfect, it's significantly more playable as a result, and the score's been updated to reflect that. Fab game.